Prior to the arrival of the United States Army in 1846, no known doctors are known to have practiced in New Mexico. After that, a combination of New Mexico’s vast distances and sparse, rural population conspired to a lack of trained medical practitioners in the area. The majority of births in New Mexico occurred without doctors well into the twentieth century. Midwives, called parteras in Spanish, assisted with the birthing process. In Spanish and Native American societies many of these women were also curanderas, people whose knowledge of local herbs and natural cures along with religion, qualified them as local healers.
Midwifery is still common in New Mexico. Emma Estrada is one example of a woman who assisted in the birthing process almost to the end of the twentieth century. She learned her trade from two other parteras and started practicing in the early 50s. In 1954, she obtained her first license to practice her trade from the State of New Mexico. Thirty-four years later, she estimated that she had attended some 700 births in the Gallup area.
Emma Estrada worked closely with the medical profession. For example, her willingness to be licensed was unique. In 1989, the Public Health Division of the State of New Mexico recognized her with a certificate of appreciation for “becoming the only partera to become a fully licensed midwife.” In September 1996, she renewed her license a year before her death. She also consulted with doctors and would not agree to assist in a birth without a doctor’s permission. In Gallup, the doctor issued a card to the patient who had to present it to the midwife. Emma “wouldn’t do a delivery unless I had the card.”
Emma Estrada and others like her were the incentive for a program to formally train, qualify, and license midwives at the University of New Mexico’s School of Nursing. In recognition of the inadequate number of care providers in New Mexico, the faculty used an existing program in Kentucky as a model to help convince the state legislature to support a midwifery program. The legislature funded UNM’s request in 1990.
Emma Estrada is fondly remembered in the Gallup area but her influence extended beyond the area where she worked to benefit a university and a state.
Various newspaper clippings:
The Gallup Independent, 7 May 1988
“Modern Midwives Prove Valuable to New Mexico,” The Albuquerque Journal, n.d.
“Veteran Gallup midwife sees changing customs, ”You Made the News, n. d.
Stephen & Carol Ingraloon & family to Raymond Estrada [Emma’s son], 16 April 2001.
License to Practice Midwifery, State of New Mexico, Department of Health, Emma Estrada, 17 September 1996
Certificate of Appreciation, The Health and Environment Department, Public Health Division, 19 January 1989. For “becoming the only partera to become a fully licensed midwife.”
With Raymond Estrada, 3 November 2008.